§ 7 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Peter Bottomley)
I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, leave out lines 14 to 16.
The purpose of the amendment is to remove from the Bill a requirement that the bridge should be designed so that wind shields are or could be fitted to reduce the effect of wind on vehicles on the bridge to not more than that on vehicles on the approach roads to the present crossing.
The House and the Government are grateful to the Select Committee for the thorough examination of wind shielding and other issues put to it through 20 days of hearings in the autumn. The Government's response to the Select Committee covers disquiet at the way the case was presented on the question of wind shielding. It explains that we are looking at that question and the lessons to be learned from it. I hope that we can now concentrate on the substance of the amendment.
A special tribute is due to my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman), who sat through every minute of the hearings. Some of what I shall say will be all too familiar to him and his colleagues. I shall describe the new work commenced since the Committee's hearings as a direct result of the Committee's work and the petitioners' cases.
At paragraph 14 of its special report, the Committee referred to the difficulty that it faced in assessing evidence of a highly technical nature on which experts disagreed fundamentally. That is not surprising. The problem is not new. It arose in connection with the Channel fixed link proposals.
The methods used to calculate the frequency at which winds blow are not claimed to have a high degree of accuracy. Although the methods advocated by Dr. Cook of the Building Research Establishment for the purpose of structural design are very good for forecasting maximum speeds—he says that they are within 5 per cent.—the estimate of the number of hours in a year during which a gust exceeding a given speed will occur has a margin of error of up to 40 per cent. It is not surprising that there are disagreements.
This issue is really about traffic management. It may involve abstruse structural engineering and meteorological theory, but it is fundamentally about the management of traffic in high winds which, in the south-east of this country, are fortunately rare.
We have considered the experiences at certain windy sites in Great Britain. There are three places which have experienced continuing problems—the bridges across the Severn, the Forth and the Humber. At other places, there are sometimes speed restrictions and the odd closure from time to time. An overall strategy does not deal with the problem. The relevant authorities solve the problem at 79 each location. Restrictions imposed range from speed limits through lane restrictions to closure to wind-susceptible vehicles—high-sided vehicles, caravans and the like. Complete closure is very rare. The Severn bridge has been closed completely three times in 21 years. The Forth and Humber bridges do not close.
From the inquiries that we have made during and since the Select Committee hearings, there is a consensus about the wind speeds which cause difficulties to traffic. All those to whom we have spoken in this country with experience of controlling traffic at windy places say that restrictions are considered on wind-susceptible vehicles when gusts of wind reach 50 miles per hour. Some authorities consider restricting the number of lanes in use usually at gusts of about 40 miles per hour, so that vehicles are not blown sideways into others in the adjoining lane. Whether those restrictions are imposed depends on the direction of the wind and traffic behaviour at the time. If the wind is not troubling the traffic, the restrictions are not imposed. The decision is very much one for the man on the spot. In the case of Dartford, that will be the crossing manager, advised by the police. The contract with DRCC — the Dartford River Crossing Company—stipulates that the police decision on this is final.
How often will it happen at Dartford? That is impossible to say with certainty. Some estimates have been made. Annex A of the response shows the results of applying the methods that the petitioners used to calculate how often the wind blows at certain speeds at various sites throughout the country and how often it has been necessary to impose restrictions.
The Meteorological Office has checked the estimates for Dartford against data from four anemometer sites in the Thames estuary. Our estimates for Dartford are of the same order as the Meteorological Office data. We are content about the estimates obtained by the forecasting method. If anything, they could be on the high side.
The annex indicates, as one would expect, that the higher speeds are experienced much less frequently than the lower ones. It indicates that the authorities have not thought it necessary to impose restrictions on wind-susceptible vehicles until gusts of about 50 miles per hour are reached. This appears not to vary with the density of traffic.
There are locations on the list which carry as much, if not more, traffic than this bridge will. One is the Thelwall viaduct.
We believe that the wind speeds at which restrictions have to be introduced—threshold speeds—recommended to the Select Committee by the petitioners—35 miles per hour for lane restrictions and 45 miles per hour for closure to wind-susceptible vehicles — do not accord with experience.
We do not believe that the estimate of hours at which gusts reach a certain speed necessarily translate into hours of restriction. The nearest bridge sites in the list to Dartford are Orwell and Medway. There has been very little trouble there.
It is reasonable to expect that things will be much the same at Dartford. We draw attention in the response to the Mar Dyke viaduct, immediately north of the present tunnels. The petitioners' forcasting method indicates that we might have expected traffic restrictions there. There have been none.
80 There is a feature of suspended bridges which makes them different from other roads—the presence of pylons or towers which hold up the cables. Mr. Brian Smith of Flint and Neill gave evidence to the Select Committee. He explained to the Committee that, at the Severn bridge, the towers caused problems in high winds because, as vehicles are masked by them from the wind, drivers correct steering only to emerge suddenly into the wind again. I can vouch for that. When I was at the Severn bridge the other day, it was one of the windiest days of the year. I stepped out from behind a tower to be struck by a wind 20 knots faster than it had been in shelter. An official who did the same nearly lost his spectacles. Just over half the incidents at the Severn bridge in the years 1984 to 1986 could be related to that effect.
There is a good case for graded shielding adjacent to the towers at Dartford. We have been told, since the proceedings of the Select Committee, that a similar solution has been adopted at the Little Belt bridge in Denmark with success. This shielding is relatively cheap, about £300,000 and will cause no redesign problems. It will be provided.
Eliminating to a large degree the effects of the towers will make the bridge more like an ordinary exposed stretch of road. It is right and fair to say that the persistency of the county councils led the bridge designers to come up with this idea. It is also being considered for the present Severn bridge. At Dartford, there will be some protection all the way along the bridge from the parapet which will be a metre high above the level of the road surface with 30 per cent. porosity.
That is very different from the Severn bridge where the top of the parapet, below the level of the road surface because of the way in which the bridge is constructed, gives no protection to traffic from wind. If that feature reduces the wind speed at road surface level, even by a little, it will add protection to traffic.
Procedures will be needed for diverting traffic through the tunnels in case of a serious accident or major maintenance, not just because of wind. We are confident that, without causing massive delays, it will be possible to segregate wind-susceptible vehicles from others, as it is at the Severn and other bridges and to divert them.
At Dartford, they will not face a detour of many miles. They will go along a slip road into the eastern lane of the east tunnel in which there will be two-way working on those occasions. There is no evidence that that practice is unsafe. Two-way working in the tunnels is normal practice when one of the Dartford tunnels is closed for maintenance.
Up to 1980, there was only one tunnel which operated with two-way traffic for 17 years, during which 140 million vehicles used the tunnel. Motorists will be informed by signs further back along the M25 when restrictions are in force. Nearer the tunnel, there will be gantry signs showing which lanes are closed. Such signs are common on the motorway network. If wind-susceptible traffic is being diverted, special signs will be switched on. There will be manual supervision of the entire process by the people who operate the crossing. There will not be interviewing of drivers, as there is at the Severn bridge, and any vehicle which appears to be wind-susceptible will be directed off the bridge. On the Kent side, it is practicable to ensure that traffic mixes again safely.
It will be possible to divert all the bridge traffic into the east tunnel if the bridge has to close. It will be for the 81 crossing manager to decide which of those facilities he would use on any occasion. At night, for example, with light traffic, it might be simpler to close the bridge and divert all traffic.
The total crossing offers great flexibility. The bridge provides a fallback if there are problems in the tunnels and the present tunnel management, the police and motoring organisations regard the use of the tunnels as a perfectly practicable and acceptable way in which to deal with problems on the bridge. Some details remain to be settled, and we shall speak again to them and to local highway authorities. It is not possible to do this at any other crossing. Everywhere else, a long diversion is necessary if the bridge cannot be used. That is one of the reasons why the Government are considering wind-shielding on the second Severn crossing.
The Select Committee heard evidence from the petitioners to the effect that the present bridge design could be adapted for £5 million to £6 million and that there will be no more than a few weeks' delay in design. The nature of the adaptation proposed was, in our view, questionable. Substantial last-minute alterations should not be made to a major bridge design without taking great care. That view is now confirmed independently by a Danish designer — Mr. Aksel Frandsen — who has no connection with the Department or DRCC. The full report is in the Library. There is a brief summary of it in the response.
He confirmed that if there is to be full wind-shielding of the kind proposed by the petitioners, there must be a fundamental redesign of the bridge deck. He also confirmed that the delay estimated by DRCC—18 to 21 months — for redesign and extra construction time is realistic, although two or three months might be shaved off with luck. The estimated cost of full shielding varies between £15.25 million and £18.75 million, depending on the design of the bridge in relation to the present toll booths. Nobody can be sure of the exact cost at this stage, but it must be of this order.
Whether the lower or the higher of the two estimates of cost increase is taken, there would have to be amendments to the toll regime provided in the Bill, because it would no longer satisfy the cash flow conditions stipulated. In simple terms, DRCC would not have enough cash in the early years of operation to service its debts to those who are to finance construction of the bridge. To restore the current expectation that tolls would cease after 14 or 15 years and continue for a maximum of 20 years, an increase of about 6 per cent. in the real level tolls would be required.
§ Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)
How can the Minister calculate that the difference between income and expenditure in the early years will be too tight for the toll regime when DRCC could not give the Select Committee any estimate of its income in the early years or for any given year? Does he have information which has been produced since the Select Committee met, or was there information available which DRCC did not make available to the Select Committee?
§ Mr. Bottomley
It is generally accepted that calculations were made to get to the 14 or 15-year estimate in the original proposal. I imagine that that was accepted by the Select Committee.
§ Dr. Reid
I think that the Minister said that the differential would be tight in the early years. I am not talking about the 15-year sum. I am asking how he can tell the House that, in any one of the early years, the income would be insufficient to meet the DRCC's requirements if that company cannot give us its estimate of income in any of those early years.
§ Mr. Bottomley
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has gone through more of this than I have, at least in the Select Committee—I have had it somewhat at secondhand. If we take as the base line the calculation on the original estimated cost and take the flow of revenue before the bridge is open as a given level and add, say, £16 million to the cost of providing the bridge before there can be extra capacity, it is quite clear that the difference between interest payments and revenue must provide a great effect. I do not know whether I put it sufficiently clearly to explain it, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman has another point in mind.
§ Dr. Reid
No, I have not. I am asking the Minister a simple question. If he does not know the income for any of those early years, how can he tell me whether the bridge will run at a profit, at a loss or how tight it will be? If we do not have that fact in the equation, we cannot assert what the Minister asserted. If, however, the Minister has the information necessary to make that assertion, he must have information which was unavailable to DRCC when the Select Committee met, because the company refused to give us that information.
§ Mr. Bottomley
I think that the hon. Gentleman may be pushing the point in rather more detail than the debate needs.
§ Mr. Bottomley
It has been asserted that tolls would have to rise by 6 per cent. in real terms. Whether that is 5.5 per cent. or 6.5 per cent. is not at this point directly significant. The fact that there would have to be extra income to fund the extra spending should be accepted on both sides of the House.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
The general proposition, that if more money is spent more money must be collected and therefore the toll regime may have to be re-examined, is common sense and clear. What puzzles us is that the Minister asserted that, in the early years of the crossing, the toll regime would be too tight to warrent the additional expenditure. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) is trying to find out why that information was not available to the Select Committee.
§ Mr. Bottomley
I hesitate to repeat myself, but the level of income does not affect the assertion that an extra, say, £16 million of costs adds significantly to the capital cost of providing the bridge. In the early years, the debt rises dramatically, as has happened with several other bridges funded by tolls. In the later years, it is less relevant because, if the early years are under control, the later years look after themselves.
To what extent DRCC was able to say it did or did not know precisely what the revenue would be depends on the amount of traffic. If traffic rose at 17 per cent. a year, it is possible to calculate, at any given level of toll, what the 83 income will be. It is also possible to estimate what change must be made to the debts that need servicing by looking at the capital cost. It seems to me as simple as that at that level of analysis. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman needs to illustrate a case, if he accepts the suggestion that an increased capital sum would be needed for redesign and for wind-shielding, he will be able to argue that in a speech and I shall try to respond to it, but I think that we have probably taken the matter as far as we can at this stage.
It is unlikely to be possible to amend the Bill to provide for this increase without readvertising the amendments and inviting petitions in respect of them. We would have to question whether such a solution offered the best value for money. The Select Committee considered the costs of and the benefits to be gained from wind-shielding. The petitioners carried out some cost-benefit analysis. We have, too.
In our latest calculations, we assume that the estimates of wind forecast in the annex to this response will be borne out in practice and that restrictions would be imposed at the same wind speeds as they are at the Severn. We have carried out a careful analysis of the delays to traffic that that would cause during the next 30 years before and after tolls come to an end. The result was strongly negative, indicating that full wind-shielding was not justified on economic grounds. One of the reasons for that was the substantial cost to traffic in delays while the redesign took place. The capital cost did not match the savings either.
§ Mr. Bottomley
I think that I might wait until I have heard the rest of my hon. Friend's speech before answering that question.
Members of the Select Committee will be aware that this is not an exact science. Widely differing views were put to the Select Committee and, understandably enough, it made its decision. During the past two months, the Government have had the benefit of thinking through these matters again. In the light of the Select Committee's hearings and taking further advice, the Government have come to a judgment different from that of the majority of the Select Committee and have been confirmed in their view by evidence that is now available. Given all the evidence, we cannot justify the extra cost and delay for the rare occasions on which restrictions will be necessary.
I am content to be held responsible for this decision. I carry the can. We are asking the House to accept the amendment not simply because of the delay and the cost, or to assist the policy of private financing, or because we are the friends of anyone, but because it is right.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes
We see before us a fascinating example of what happens to Government buiness that is mixed up with the hybrid Bill procedure, but a clause stand part debate might be a more appropriate time at which to discuss whether the procedure is a good one.
Let me first associate myself with the tribute paid to hon. Members who served on the Select Committee—both for their perseverence in the many hours through which they sat and for their close attention to detail. It is clear from an examination of the minutes of evidence that the decision to add the words that the amendment seeks to remove was not made capriciously. The Select 84 Committee members did not do it because they felt a bit upset about getting up early after a bad night; they did it because they had examined the evidence seriously, and believed that there was a serious point to be made.
To be fair, the Minister has conceded that the Select Committee arrived at its decision having weighed the evidence in the balance. It must be difficult, with such technical matters, to decide which experts are giving the best advice. Before we consider that, however, the Minister must answer one or two questions.
We can argue about the quantity and severity of the problems on the Severn bridge, but it is a fact that problems have been caused by lane closures and the restriction of movement by high-sided vehicles because of wind pressures. Given those problems, it is astonishing that, when it was decided to go ahead with the crossing, the effect of wind turbulence on traffic never entered the Department's mind. Apparently the design brief contained no recommendation for an analysis or appreciation of those effects, although everyone knows that wind turbulence is caused by high-sided towers or blocks.
The Minister has described his recent experience at the Severn, when he stepped from behind a pillar and was nearly blown off his feet and either he or one of his officials nearly lost his spectacles. As is no doubt common knowledge among architects, wind breaks sometimes have to be erected in high-rise housing blocks where people walk out of the door and are nearly blown off their feet. There is considerable debate about wind turbulence in technical journals: surely the designers of bridges must know about its effects.
After the hours of debate in the Select Committee, and the responses that it received, it is not good enough for the Minister to tell us merely that the Select Committee has a point, and that the Government will meet that point just so far by introducing partial wind-shielding. That means that drivers of high-sided vehicles would gradually find the pressure on the sides of their vehicles increasing, and be able to control it, without being suddenly blown off course by a blast of wind. The Minister must tell us first why the initial design brief did not examine the problem, and secondly why he is turning down the idea of full wind-shielding.
§ Mr. Hughes
I accept that that was what was said. In that context, the paragraph in the Select Committee report which stated that the Committee was extremely unhappy about the way in which the evidence was presented has even more point.
We must consider the short-term and the long-term future of the bridge. I fully accept the point that I think the Minister is making: the need for the river crossing is urgent and it is long overdue. The present two tunnels cannot cope any longer, and something must be done to relieve the congestion. On the other hand, if the Minister has got it wrong and the bridge will be closed to high-sided vehicles more frequently than he would like to think, so that vehicles must go back down the twin tunnels—one of which, presumably, will have to be closed to traffic 85 going in one direction, so that traffic can move in the other direction — how much delay and congestion will that cause? In a sense, it is a question of what is acceptable.
There is an old saying used by fishermen, and indeed seamen of all kinds: why spoil the ship for a hap'orth of tar? Is it reasonable to accept restrictions, given the problems that might be caused in the future? We are not speaking about five, 10 or even 20 years from now. We should consider the forecasts of increased traffic being generated in London, and the fact that every road improvement scheme seems to generate its own traffic over and above any official forecasts. It is almost a law of nature that any such forecast can be multiplied by x. The traffic generates itself. If the Select Committee's advice is not taken, extra congestion may build up to reach the proportions that are currently generated in the area, possibly for longer than the Minister would suggest.
I appreciate that, when it comes to accepting the advice of experts, in a sense you pays your money and you takes your choice, but a risk is being taken. I do not refer to the safety of the bridge; the safety of the traffic is at issue. The number of days for which the bridge will be closed will affect the amount of disruption that is caused.
§ Mr. Tim Janman (Thurrock)
The projected number of hours of lane closure for the east London river crossing, only eight miles up river, is 25 hours a year. Why does the hon. Gentleman think that the projection for the Dartford-Thurrock crossing of 24 hours a year is likely to be inaccurate?
§ Mr. Hughes
I believe that long periods were suggested. One figure suggested was 17 hours of lane restrictions a week, which I think translates to 880 hours a year. Other evidence suggests a figure of 550 hours a year, or 10 or 11 hours a week. That might take place in the middle of the night when there is not much traffic around anyway. If there are 17 hours of lane restrictions a week—only time will tell whether that is accurate—hon. Members who were so vociferous in their arguments against wind-shielding may find themselves under heavy pressure from their constituents, who have remained quiet so far because they have not thought it necessary to make a fuss.
§ Mr. Janman
I asked the hon. Gentleman why he felt that, given the projection of 25 hours of lane closures a year at the east London river crossing only eight miles away, there was any reason to believe that the projection of only 24 hours of lane closures a year at Dartford was inaccurate. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the consultancy firm that projected the 500 hours of lane closures a year at the Dartford-Thurrock crossing projected half that number for a bridge across the Channel?
§ Mr. Hughes
I shall not be diverted into a debate about what would happen with a bridge across the Channel. Had that company won the design and provided for no wind-shielding, there would have been one hell of a row, as we all know.
The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) asked why I should reject the expert advice that there would be 25 hours of lane closures a year at the east London river crossing compared with 24 hours a year at Dartford. I suspect that when we deal with the east London river crossing in detail we shall have the same argument because different experts will come forward with different views.
§ Dr. Reid
As an illustration, does my hon. Friend accept that the Government's projections for a cross-Channel bridge, which was of similar height and was to cross an exposed channel, referred to lane restrictions which turned out to be less than their predictions for the Dartford-Thurrock crossing?
§ Mr. Hughes
I accept my hon. Friend's point, but I do not want to be diverted to a debate on the Channel crossing.
There are many views on the exact number of hours of lane closures. I even concede a point which, I recollect, was not made by counsel in closing speeches. Even if there were a maximum of 17 hours of lane closures a week, much of that might be in the middle of the night, when there was not much traffic anyway, so I am almost giving half a point to the hon. Member for Thurrock. I should have thought that, if there were 17 hours of lane closures a week, that should be taken seriously. The Government have done so. That is why they have said that they do not want the words in the Bill. I hope that the Minister said that they will provide partial wind-shielding. At one stage he almost said that the Government would consider doing that. We must get it right.
§ Mr. Hughes
It will be, provided the House does not reject the Government amendment.
We must consider whether to accept expert advice. All members of the Committee suggested that wind-shielding could be provided by light plastic windshields of sufficient strength to do the job without adding to the weight of the bridge. I am inclined to accept the view that, if wind-shielding is provided—whatever the materials—redesign will be needed because of the effect on the bridge's stability. One cannot get away with saying that wind-shielding can be provided for the whole length of the bridge without affecting the design. If we believe that the wind will affect high-sided vehicles, causing them to veer, it is obvious that wind-shielding will lead to bending stress on the bridge, which must be considered in redesign. I am prepared to accept that if there is to be full wind-shielding there must be a full redesign.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) will pursue the point of the early years of a toll regime versus the later years. I accept that if more capital, and therefore more borrowing, are required, resulting in greater costs, there will have to be a new toll regime. I do not understand why that bothers the Minister. If the product is better and the customer is not diverted as often as he could be, he might be perfectly happy to pay an increased toll for the better service. I do not think that it makes any difference whether the tolls are collected over 20 or 25 years so long as the balance is right.
The Bill says that the crossing has 20 years to get its money back with tolls. If the money is recovered within 15 years, ownership of the bridge reverts to the Department of Transport. If at the end of 20 years the tolls have not paid for the cost of the bridge, it still reverts to the Department of Transport, and the banks or whoever put up the money have to stand the loss. It is a risk. If we overload the cost of the bridge, we should give the company another five years to get its money back or allow it to impose a higher toll to get its money back within the same period. Risk capital is involved.
87 The Minister is in a dilemma. He wants the bridge to be built by risk capital, but he is frightened lest he scare the risk capital away.
§ Mr. Janman
Although the cost element is important, far more important is the delay, as the hon. Gentleman accurately stated. Does he think it worth delaying a major project, which is urgently needed, for 15 to 18 months simply because there will be 24 hours of lane closures a year, much of it in the dead of night when there is hardly any traffic?
§ Mr. Hughes
I shall answer that question in my last sentences.
If the toll regime must be changed, that can readily be done. There is the choice whether to increase tolls or give the company a longer period in which to get its money back. We must decide one way or the other. It comes down to whether a delay—a delay of 18 to 21 months may be reasonable; I do not know—is worth having to get the project right. The answer is yes.
I suspect that, if the normal planning procedures had been followed, the bridge would not have been built for another 14 years. The Government have chosen to cut corners by having this legislation considered under the hybrid Bill procedure. They should not cut corners to the extent of arbitrarily deciding that 18 months is too long to wait to get the job right and to ensure that there is not great traffic disruption. It is always difficult to forecast. I suppose that I am safe to forecast that I shall not be a Member in 20 years' time. I have no intention of emulating my predecessor, who stayed here until he was 83, which in my case would be much more than 20 years more in the House.
I am willing to forecast that if the bridge is built according to the design put forward by the Minister, there will be so much disruption and concern that within 15 to 20 years—possibly even sooner—there will be demands for partial wind-shielding to be converted into full wind-shielding, however that is done. Perhaps — I do not know whether I am making a defence for the Minister—bridge design will have advanced in 50 years' time and that will be a possibility.
We have no Whip present. I do not know whether the Minister can say the same for the Government; the danger is that Government business is whipped. Having seen the evidence, and having discussed and thought about it, I do not believe that we should support the Government's amendment. We should do what the Select Committee did and insist on full wind-shielding.
§ Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)
I am grateful for being called because I was Chairman of the Select Committee that examined the Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister has reminded us that it met for more than 20 sitting days. According to my calculations, it was in session for 111 hours. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's words of approbation, and I should like to say how much I appreciated the assistance of my hon. Friends the Members for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman), for Chorley (Mr. Dover) and for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) and the hon. Members for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan), for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) and for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway). I note that all the members of the Committee are in their places tonight.
88 To help the House, I shall make one or two points to show the problems that the Committee faced. As has been said, there was complete disagreement on the basic elements leading to the judgment whether the bridge should have wind-shielding. There was complete disagreement among the experts who were called by the promoters and petitioners. Somebody might say, "You must be a rather naive person if you feel that experts will not disagree." The other Members of the Committee will support me when I say that the disagreement was so fundamental and complete that it caused us great concern.
The disagreement was in three sectors. Although many years ago I qualified as an architect, I am a complete layman in the technical details of bridge design. There was disagreement about the frequency of high winds. There was a 50 per cent. disagreement between the two expert witnesses called by the petitioners. There was more than a 50 per cent. disagreement on the frequency of high winds between the most conservative estimate of the petitioners and the statutes that were given by the promoters. The leading expert witness called by the petitioners — the prestigious Essex and Kent county councils—was none other than Dr. Nicholas Cook, who is the senior principal scientific officer and wind engineering section head at the Department of the Environment's Building Research Establishment. The petitioners therefore called the leading Government expert.
There was complete disagreement about what the delay would be before the bridge was completed. As my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) said, the petitioners said that the delay would be only six weeks, and the promoters said that it would be about 15 to 18 months. As to the extra cost — my hon. Friend the Minister reminded us of the figures—the petitioners said that it would be about £5.4 million and that there would be no need for a fundamental redesign of the bridge. The promoters said that it would cost between £15,250,000 and £18,750,000 and that it would involve a fundamental redesign of the bridge.
I do not think that the Committee was helped by one or two aspects of the promoters' case — the promoters being the Government and the concessionaires. The promoters were reluctant to give information about the design of the bridge when it was requested by the Committee.
The promoters—I want to put their case as fairly as I can and I hope that, as Chairman of the Committee, I am being impeccably neutral — claimed commercial confidentiality, and they may have been right. However, that begs two questions. The lesser question is, at what point does commercial confidentiality not need to be kept? They had been appointed to build the bridge. For how long do they need to keep that commercial confidentiality, which presumably would go as soon as construction of the bridge began?
The more important question that one should ask—and it is right that the Chairman of the Committee should do so — is, if the promoters are using parliamentary procedures—it is the Select Committee's job to hear the evidence of the petitioners—surely we are entitled, for the benefit of the public, to demand information so that the matter can be properly examined.
Given the scale and technical nature of the petitioners' case, I believe that we should have been given other 89 additional information—not only the information about the design of the bridge—by the promoters. I shall give one example. We did not have annex A, which was attached to the Minister's response and which gave information of wind speeds at 13 major road bridges in Britain and the details of the traffic restrictions that are imposed on them. While a little of that information dribbled out over the 15 days, it would have been helpful to have that table.
Two matters have become apparent to me, and members of the Committee can disagree with me if they wish. I believe that, because of the detail and complexity of the technical evidence, we should have had, from the outset, a technical adviser or specialist who could have guided us and saved a little time. The time that the Committee took had nothing to do with the competence of its Chairman, but everything to do with the pace set by the petitioners' counsel, who I gather was on a rather larger salary than the combined salaries of the Committee. Surely we should have had, from the outset, that technical advice, which the more general departmental Select Committees can call upon. I leave that thought as a possible change that might be made in future procedures.
The fact that the experts would disagree profoundly must have been realised before the Committee met. Even though we took the decision to hear the petitioners' case on wind-shielding on 28 October—at first the promoters said that we had no locus to do so, so we had to take evidence on that — there were six weeks between us making our decision and the end of the Committee proceedings. The promoters were slow to respond, at least.
At best—I must say this to my hon. Friend the Minister—the independent advice that my hon. Friend has since acquired should have been instigated shortly after 28 October at the latest. It is only two months since the Committee reported. Given the time scale of six weeks between 28 October and the last sitting of the Committee, the promoters could have been more ready and willing to provide us with the information that we needed.
Whatever the merits or otherwise of wind-shielding the bridge, it was little wonder that the Committee, by a majority of five to one, took the decision that it did, given these circumstances. As Chairman of the Select Committee, I did not vote. In the parliamentary tradition, I shall continue to adopt impeccable neutrality tonight. When I fall off the fence on to the bridge, whether or not it is wind-shielded, I hope that I shall fall on the right side of it and that it is a soft landing.
§ Dr. Reid
Much as the Minister would like it, I do not intend to attempt to condense 111 hours of evidence into a 10-minute speech. That is beyond even the abstractive powers of the various hon. Members who were asked to sit on the Committee. It should not be necessary to repeat what took 111 hours to weigh up in the 21 days on which we sat in judgment, but that is what the Government are asking us to do today. Although it was an arduous task to sit on the Committee for 21 days, I note as I look around the Strangers Gallery that there must be some people who are gluttons for punishment. There are one or two familiar faces. Such are the passions that the issue has aroused.
The Minister's contribution was no counterbalance to the tons of evidence that the Committee had to sift during 111 hours. Indeed, if we put on the scales of justice or of rationality the contribution of that 21 days, along with the 90 Minister's case, which, with great respect, appeared to be an anecdote about how his official lost his spectacles on the Severn bridge, we would find the Government's case this time around as wanting as their previous case.
It may be of interest to hon. Members who have remained in the Chamber to know that I have no subjective interest in the matter. The Dartford-Thurrock crossing is not continually in the minds or on the lips of my constituents. It is not a matter of common discussion in the bars of Bellshill or on the streets of Shotts. I have no interest other than the public interest. It is obviously not of ideological interest to me or to my party, as hon. Members can see, judging from the Benches behind me. The proposed wind shield is not even to be constructed of steel, so, from that point of view, no one can accuse me of having a localised interest.
I ask the Minister and other hon. Members to accept that my interest is purely that of any hon. Member who is put on a Select Committee—that is, to pursue the public interest for the best possible reasons and to the fullest possible extent, to ensure that Parliament defends the interests of people outside the House who feel that their interests have not so far been served by the Government. That was the function, approach and philosophy of the Select Committee throughout its deliberations.
In their response to the Committee's report, the Government were fulsome in their praise. They referred to a long and arduous series of sittings spread over 21 days. They thanked us for our full and painstaking examination of the issues, but then said, "By the way, we reject every recommendation except one." That is the handy little recommendation, in which we happened to say that the presentation of the Government's case was abysmal. Of course it was abysmal, but the Government find it handy to accept that recommendation because, in so doing, they can say, "Really, it was nothing to do with the weight of the evidence, it was merely the presentation." The long-term injury for the Government is to mistake the shadow for the substance.
It is true that the presentation of the Government's case was extremely poor, but even if it had been much better, I am utterly convinced that the evidence would still have been in favour of the plaintiffs. The Chairman of the Committee referred to 111 hours and 21 days, of which not less than 15 days were spent on the wind shield issue alone. After 15 days of examination and cross-examination the Select Committee concluded by a majority of five to one in favour of the addition of a wind shield on the bridge.
Why should there have been a five to one majority? Why should an hon. Member such as myself, with no remote connection with the subject and with no subjective interest in the outcome, who supports the need for the crossing, as do other hon. Members, who appreciates the need to relieve as soon as possible traffic conditions and inconvenience in the area, who is aware of the long delays that motorists suffer at present, and who is fully cognisant of the Government's claim that wind-shielding would entail extra delays and costs in the construction programme, decide that there should be a wind shield on the bridge? Right hon. and hon. Members must decide that matter for themselves.
Despite all the resources at their command, the best legal brains that money could buy — apparently, the plaintiffs were more up-market with their QC—and with the assistance of not only the reservoir of talent that 91 resides in the Civil Service but the backing of a major financial and industrial concern and the expertise of the private sector, the Government utterly failed to provide the Select Committee with a case.
§ Mr. Janman
Is the hon. Gentleman willing to comment on the fact that the QC employed by the petitioners was certainly on a high salary and the projected rate increase in the county of Essex this year is 17.8 per cent.?
§ Dr. Reid
I cannot comment on rates. I can certainly say that if the QC was on an extremely high salary, and considering the way in which the evidence was presented, he deserved every penny of it. If the matter was judged purely in terms of convincing a Committee, he should have been paid 10 times the salary that the Government paid their QC.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley
I appreciate that members of the Select Committee will have their say, but it may be helpful if we accept that the way in which the Government presented their case is on trial, not the Select Committee and not any counsel for either side.
§ Dr. Reid
I accept that. I was merely responding to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman).
We have already paid tribute to the Chairman of the Committee. He conducted himself in an impeccable manner throughout the deliberations. He is not only an impeccable Chairman but an extremely polite man. He said that the presentation of the Government's case lacked something. He said:We felt there was a lack of readiness … by the Government … to make available necessary technical and financial information which would have greatly assisted the Committee".That was the understatement of the year.
At times the Committee descended into Whitehall farce as the Government became enmeshed in an ever-thickening web of apparent obstruction, which any objective Member could only have concluded was intended to obfuscate the real issue of whether the evidence supported the case for wind-shielding. For example, the famous design plans have been referred to. It may be of interest to hon. Members to know that, when the Committee first referred to the issue, the Government's initial case was that the plaintiffs had no locus.
The Government presented their case, the Select Committee decided against them, and the plaintiffs presented their case. Remember that the Government's case was that there would be undue delays and cost, because any wind-shielding would require a fundamental redesign of the bridge. The problem was that the Government would not release the bridge designs to the plaintiffs or, indeed, to the Select Committee. Therefore, it became impossible to estimate whether the Government were telling the truth. If one does not have the designs, it is difficult how a wind shield will affect redesign. Faced with that, the Committee asked the Government for the reasons.
The first reason that we were given was commercial confidentiality. That rather perplexed the Committee, because, as far as we were aware, the bridge will be owned by the Government. If the bridge is owned by the Government, we presume that the designs are owned by the Government. So we overruled them on commercial 92 confidentiality. But during the arguments on commercial confidentiality, the Government told us explicitly that there was a danger that the designs might fall into the hands of our foreign competitors—especially, and not surprisingly, the West Germans. But despite the threats from the German bogeyman across the Channel, we overruled the Government on that point.
8 pm The Government then told us that even if confidentiality did not apply, it would be impossible to produce the designs because they did not exist. They said that it would take four to five weeks to put them together. That raised the obvious question: if the designs did not exist, how could the Government tell us that a wind shield would require a fundamental redesigning of the bridge? A simple question, one might think. Again, we overruled the Government and asked for the designs to be produced at short notice. We were then told that they could not be produced at short notice because the Government had to refer to the designer, the mysterious Dr. Homburg who—surprise, surprise—is a West German. Remember the people against whom we had to protect the designs' confidentiality? It appears that the designers were a team of West Germans.
Faced with that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you might have excused the objective member of the Select Committee for thinking that something was going on. That example sums up all the obstructive tactics that were used. In retrospect, it is easy to see why the Government were so reluctant to produce the evidence. The weight of the testimony and the evidence completely undermined the Government's case.
It is astounding that one of the most telling contributions against the Government's case and in favour of wind-shielding came from Dr. Cook, a Government employee and one of their foremost experts in wind—outside the Chamber, at least—who had not even been consulted on the matter. No one had thought to lift the telephone and say to the Government's top export— [Interruption.] I will not reflect on his future. He may be an export at some stage. No one thought to telephone the top expert in wind and say to him, "We are building this great construction from Dartford to Thurrock. It is a fair old height and a massive size. Do you think we may have problems with wind?" We had the irony of the plaintiffs bringing their case against the Government and producing as one of their most telling witnesses an expert employed by the Government.
The essence of Dr. Cook's testimony was that, contrary to the Government's claim, the site of the Dartford-Thurrock crossing was wind-prone. The hon. Member for Thurrock asked earlier about the evidence in relation to a similar bridge nearby, but the existing basis of calculation of wind, which took into account general wind patterns, was not detailed enough to allow for localised conditions. That could mean that the Dartford-Thurrock crossing would be much more exposed to dangerous winds than a similar bridge, perhaps in the same general geographical area but not in the precise locality. That information could have been obtained by a simple telephone call.
I do not accept the limited wind-shielding that the Minister mentioned. It is a coincidence that out of the blue limited wind-shielding was added to the plans for the bridge within three days of the start of the Select Committee's deliberations. A discussion that had been 93 continuing for some months, with the plaintiffs asking for wind-shielding for more than a year previously, suddenly and miraculously came to a conclusion within 72 hours of the Committee's starting to ask questions about wind-shielding. It was a pre-emptive strike.
Nor can I accept that the wind shield would be a superfluous extra. As the Minister said, it is being actively considered for the second Severn crossing. I cannot accept that the Government—
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley
Limited wind-shielding is being considered for the existing Severn crossing. Wind-shielding is being considered for the second crossing. It might be helpful to establish that.
§ Dr. Reid
I thought that that was what I said.
I cannot accept the Government's report, which simply goes through every issue that the petitioners have mentioned and replies to them. It is almost as though the members of the Committee were sitting in a time warp for 21 days. If all that will happen is that the petitioners' questions will be answered in the House, ignoring completely the decisions of the Select Committee, it might as well not have sat. The Government employed all the arguments, bar one, in testimony before the Committee. They acted as defence counsel during the trial, but when the jury found against them, they sacked the jury and said, "We do not like the decision. We will not only be defence counsel, but we shall set ourselves up as jury, judge and final court of appeal."
That not only undermines the Government's case on this crossing but seriously undermines the entire system of Select Committees. Of course, as the Minister will say, the Government are not obliged to accept the decisions of Select Committees. But they are obliged to give more weight to the Select Committee's deliberations than they appear from their response to have done.
The Minister said that the issue is one of traffic management. But that is the point of contention. The Government cannot solve a problem merely by reiterating the assertion on which they based their principal argument. The Committee, having heard the evidence, decided that it was not merely a question of traffic management. The issue before the House is whether high winds will cause the closure of the bridge or the restriction of lanes so frequently as to undermine the reason for constructing the crossing.
§ Dr. Reid
I see the hon. Gentleman nodding. I do not know where he got the estimate of 24 hours. It may horrify him to know that the average estimate of the plaintiffs, which was lower than Dr. Cook's estimate, was 550 hours a year of possible lane restrictions and closures. If the objective is to alleviate traffic problems between Dartford and Thurrock, the hon. Gentleman must ask himself whether, in the eagerness to construct the crossing, the company will not be constructing a white elephant.
I do not accept the argument on costs. The Minister said—he had no evidence to back his assertion, because I asked him, as I asked the Dartford River Crossing Company—that it would be impossible to encompass within the existing toll regime the additional cost of about £15 million to £30 million. He contended that, in the early years, the income would be insufficient, given the extra that would be necessary to pay the interest.
94 I make two comments on that assertion. First, the Dartford River Crossing Company was asked specifically by me and others to provide an estimate of its income for the early years. If a company cannot provide an estimate of income, it cannot say that that income will be insufficient to meet extra costs. It could not provide such an estimate, and nor could the Minister tonight. He said that if one adds £18 million to an existing bill, it is bound to be more at the end of the day. We are all grateful for that intellectual insight. It is one which the Committee would accept.
Even adding the £18 million and its interest to the existing moneys that have to be collected in tolls—we discussed that evidence in Committee — there is still sufficient leeway without any vast increase within the 20-year toll regime to collect that additional money. On present estimates, without taking into account the wind-shielding, the cost could be recouped in 14, 15 or 16 years. With the additional money it would be a bit of a tight squeeze, but it could be recouped within the 20-year toll regime. In other words, the global sum could be recouped without any major changes in the term of the toll regime.
The question is simple. Is it worth delaying the project for 18 months and paying an extra £15 million to render efficient for the purposes for which it is created a bridge that may last for well over a century? We are not talking about 24 hours a year delay, but 550 or possibly 880 hours. I contend, and the Select Committee contends, that 18 months delay and £15 million are justified for a bridge that will last over a century.
The Minister said that the Government had reconsidered the matter since the Select Committee reported, but I have seen no evidence of that. Indeed, from his response it is clear that, far from having reconsidered the matter, the Government have stuck obstinately to the original decision at the time of the initial tender. I do not know whether it is collective loyalty to the Department and decisions that have already been taken; whether it is sheer embarrassment; whether they are utterly and sincerely convinced that we, as well as their experts and the weight of evidence, are wrong; whether it is from friendship or loyalty to Trafalgar House; or whether it is because the contract has already been awarded.
Parliament, in the shape of the Select Committee, has served the plaintiffs, the public and future users of the Dartford-Thurrock crossing well. Unfortunately, the Government have served them ill. I am sure that the Minister has a marvellous future before him and I agree with one of his statements. He said that he would carry the can. He will indeed. I hope for his sake that we are wrong, because if we are correct—and I believe that we are—it will not be a can that he will carry during his career but a large albatross around his neck.
§ Mr. Dicks
First, I declare an interest. In 1985 I had an interest in Taylor Woodrow. When I served on the Select Committee I was not aware that Taylor Woodrow had made a bid for the original Dartford crossing, but my interest is registered in the section that deals with Members' interests, and has been since 1985. I was appointed to the Committee by the Committee of Selection, which must have been aware of that background.
I was the only member of the Committee who at the outset felt that the Government's case was correct and that the petitioners had no locus. I felt that we should not listen 95 to the case put by Kent and Essex county councils. How wrong I was. I am pleased to say that, and that my colleagues who decided that we should hear their case were right.
All of us, without exception, want to see this bridge in place, and we were all anxious to deal with the matter as quickly as possible. Had there been an obvious way to do so, we would have taken it, so before anybody says that we set out on this long voyage deliberately to have fun and games at the Government's expense, let me assure them that the opposite was the case. We had hoped to deal with the matter in a few days, but it took 21 days and almost 112 hours.
If one were malicious, one would say that the Government's presentation contains lies, and damned lies, but that would be most unfair. Yet, having noted the lack of details in the presentation, I would not be keen to have the Department of Transport, Mott, Hay and Anderson and Trafalgar House build a bridge with my grandson's Lego.
I have listened to try to find out where the truth lies, but I am left with a great deal of scepticism and anxiety, although it is private money. We are all aware of what is going on. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) described well how we had asked for information, but it was not forthcoming, for the various reasons that he set out, until we pressed for it. That was just one of about half a dozen instances that have given rise to my scepticism. I accept that my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) quite properly took a different view, but the longer the Committee sat, the more sceptical most of us became. We were shown evidence and given views which were subsequently changed. We were not absolutely sure what was happening.
8.15 pm I was concerned that we did not have access to Herr Helmut Homburg—that is a joke in itself. In his profile it said that the laws in Germany during the 1930s were changed to enable him to start his rising career as a bridge builder. We were not able to invite to the Select Committee the man who knew all the technical details and has special information that the Select Committee should have; nor could we question him and find out his thinking. Only by exerting pressure did we manage to persuade the Department to send a telex to Germany asking him what he thought about wind shields. His four or five line reply was that he did not want them "on my bridge". We thought that it was the Government's bridge.
I am a little uneasy about talking about the quality of the people working for the Government, Mott, Hay and Anderson, and Trafalgar House. The project manager, who is a charming gentleman, sat for many hours giving us the benefit of his wisdom. My colleagues discovered his background: he has limited experience, primarily from highway maintenance, he has never built a bridge, and he has no experience of the impact of wind on a bridge. He said that from walking around Dartford and perhaps crossing the Severn bridge he felt in his bones that the position was not too bad. He had a feeling inside him. We are talking a £82 million project. We asked him why he had not approached Dr. Cook, a Government employee with 96 great expertise, for help at the beginning. He had never thought about it. Dr. Cook works in a Department and is paid by the Government.
§ Mr. Janman
Does my hon. Friend think that that may have something to do with the fact that there is no major estuarial crossing in the world with full wind-shielding?
§ Mr. Dicks
With great respect to my hon. Friend, not at all. If one is to build a bridge, one should receive the best and most comprehensive advice possible. Essex and Kent county councils brought a witness who was a wind expert—not someone they found, but a man in a Government office. Yet central Government did not bother to ask one of their employees whose salary they pay. Nothing could be more stupid and unthinking.
The project manager—nice chap that he is, indeed a charming man—was not qualified. He did not have the expertise, background or specialisation to handle this project. One wonders how on earth he got the job.
I shall not stop there. I come now to the representatives of the agents. Although the contracts were up for tender for the job, no one was up for tender to be the agents. Why did Mott, Hay and Anderson get the job? The company did another job for the Department of Transport some time ago, so perhaps the Department thought that it was good and would have it back again. There was no competition, and it seemed to me—I am not an expert—that the Department had had a good job done by the company in the past and decided that it would bring it along and use it because it seemed pretty good.
To judge from what we heard from the representative, his evidence was flawed, to say the least. He was unfamiliar with wind-shield techniques and could not distinguish one type from another. He turned to Dr. Cook for advice, but did not appear to like it or bother to follow it up. His attitude to wind expertise, about which he knew nothing, was cavalier and throwaway. He described it as nothing more than weather forecasting. If a leading member of the Government's agents plays down the importance of wind on a bridge, be it the Severn bridge or the Dartford-Thurrock crossing, in such a cavalier manner, it makes one wonder how they came to be the Government's agents and how that man came to be in charge of the presentation.
In order to be fair to the three parties concerned, let us turn to Trafalgar House. It decided to bring along an accountant. He told us about his qualifications as a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, so we had hoped for some expertise from him. We asked if he had brought any figures along and he replied that he had not. We asked him how, if there was a delay, he would raise the money. He answered that he did not know how long that would take—possibly six months. We thought he was an accountant, but it turned out that he was not really one. He sounded like a Back-Bench Conservative Member doing what he was told when he was told to do it.
We put in our report and the Government examined it. Chapter 17 of the response says:The Government, as promoters of the Bill, assisted by the concessionnaires, presented the case in the way they thought most helpful to the Committee.Lies, damned lies and statements in the Minister's reply. There is no other way of putting it. If that was what the Government thought was the most helpful way, God help us if they wanted to be obstructive.
This reflected the obligation the Government felt to safeguard information which the concessionnaires considered would be of commercial value to a competitor.97 The only information that the Government wanted to safeguard in their presentation to us was the information that would help us come to a full and proper conclusion in our deliberations. I do not hesitate to say that, and I shall not backtrack on it.
We heard from the Minister in the report, and we heard it again today, that further investigations have led the Government to believe that the Committee was wrong. We sat for 111 hours—21 days. The Standing Committee—God bless the Members and their cotton socks—sat for two hours—
§ Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)
It is perhaps worth while telling the hon. Gentleman that he will strengthen his case if he realises that one of the reasons why the Standing Committee sat for less than an hour was that we did not have the Government's replies to the important points raised in the Select Committee, so there was no point in delaying the Committee at that stage.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley
We also did not have my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks).
§ Mr. Dicks
It was a clever move on the part of the Government to keep everyone in the dark until the Standing Committee had risen, and then to deliver their response. The Department of Transport, as we discovered during our deliberations, over-estimated the toll income on bridges in the north—it got that wrong—and underestimated traffic on the M25—it got that wrong, too. But it was clever enough to ensure that the information needed by hon. Members to make our case conveniently arrived after the Standing Committee has risen.
I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport on 19 December asking for a full inquiry into how the contract was awarded and how it had progressed ever since. Something about it smelt wrong. I have received an acknowledgment, but yet again there was no answer to the points that I raised, except that the Minister indirectly replied to the Select Committee that the Government had to be careful about these issues because of commercial confidentiality. With great respect to my hon. Friend—I have a high regard for his ability and for what he says and does — that is absolute bunkum. There is nothing to prevent the Government answering the questions that we raised about the way the matter has been handled. It is wrong to use confidentially in this way. The Minister, I, my hon. Friends and, I am sure, the people in the Department of Transport, know that.
The Select Committee sat through all those hours and was painstaking about its questions. We argued among ourselves and delayed each other by asking so many questions. The Chairman was kind and patient, although once or twice he told some of us off. How can the Government listen to what we say and then, in a few days, reject virtually everything that criticised them, except for one bit, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) pointed out? There is something wrong with the way in which the whole thing has been handled. To say in the report, as the Government do, that they hope that an inquiry into the points raised will ensure that the presentation is better next time is not good enough.
98 I want to know why the goal posts were moved half way through the tendering process. I want to know how Mott. Hay and Anderson obtained the agent's post. Why is the project manager someone who should not be doing the job? Why did the man from Mott, Hay and Anderson know nothing about wind problems on the bridge? Why did the accountant not bring facts and figures with him? If that is the quality of person that the Government use in the Department of Transport, is it any wonder that they underestimate traffic on the M25 and overestimate tolls in the north of England? There is something wrong in the state of Denmark.
I beg the Minister not only to learn lessons for the future, but to tell us what has been going on, why and who has been doing it. Where is the Government's latest information coming from, and who gives it to them? If it is coming from the same incompetent crew that has been advising the Government thus far, they can forget the advice as worthless.
§ Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)
I am sorry that my voice is hoarse tonight; it is in poor form because it was in too good form on Saturday at Cardiff Arms park.
I want to raise certain points that have not so far been covered. When my hon. Friends and I were first asked to serve on the Select Committee, we were all rather green, having been elected only in 1987. We were unfamiliar with some of the more arcane aspects of Commons procedure, so when the Whips approached us and told us that it was a great honour to serve on a Select Committee we rushed back to tell our hon. Friends of the new intake that we have been asked to serve on a Select Committee scrutinising private business. They asked what we had done wrong. I am still trying to find out, but it was a long job and we sat patiently. So green were we that we did not realise that the Government are allowed to score goals after the Select Committee has finished. I am glad that did not happen last Saturday. We scored a drop goal in injury time, but not after the whole match was over, which is essentially what the Government have done.
We can all share some sense of grievance at the fact that the Government have pretended that the Select Committee never met. They have said that they will accept the point about presentation and the fact that they did not put their case well. However, that merely strengthens their resolve to ram their original conclusions down the throats of hon. Members. They claim that all that was wrong was that they made a few mix-ups and did not get their act together in time to have everything ready for the Committee. Perhaps they rushed things a little and did not put the best face on what was really a strong case. All that does not please those of us who served on the Select Committee. The health of the Select Committee procedure for private or hybrid business in which there is a strong Government interest must depend on the Government showing some respect for the conclusions reached by Select Committees. They have not done so on this occasion. They have accepted the bit that does not involve any change in making up their mind and reaching conclusions. They have said that they are sticking to their guns even though they were overturned in the Committee by a majority of five to one and took a fairly severe pasting in the Committee's final conclusions. We have to ask ourselves why that happened. It is not just a matter of presentation, because something fundamental was giving rise to disquiet the whole way through.
99 8.30 pm
We are not discussing the principle of privatization—and the Opposition do not wish to raise that issue at this stage—and we are not considering privatisation of a key part of Britain's motorway infrastructure; we are debating whether the use of a design, build and finance contract for a key part of the M25 will give rise to any kind of substandard operation compared with what would have occurred if the Government had heeded to the Select Committee's conclusions.
The Select Committee met and considered the evidence in extenso. We were laymen, except for one member of the Committee who was an engineer, and we found in favour of the petitioners on some fairly fundamental points in relation to the bridge design. We expect some notice to be taken of that and will be most unhappy if it is not. We also expect some notice to be taken of the way in which we went about our work. We put our best efforts into it. We do not expect it to be dismissed as if it did not happen. That is extremely worrying for everyone involved in the work of the House of Commons as a whole.
This is a matter of concern not just for the seven of us on the Committee, who feel fairly aggrieved because the work that we put in may not have been noted in the way that one would expect, but for every hon. Member who will have to consider how the House is supposed to deal with the hybrid Bill procedure which combines Government and private interests. Are we supposed to pretend that the Committee goes through a charade of sitting for 122 hours because its Members have nothing better to do? Is it intended to be a real part of the examination of evidence which allows the Committee to draw conclusions?
It is most unfortunate, when private companies and the Government combine on docks, harbours, roads and bridges and use the hydrid Bill procedure more and more, that the Goverment do not recognise that the essential countervailing part of that is that they must take notice of the conclusions reached by Select Committees, even when those conclusions run counter to the case made by the Government. There must be times when the Government are willing to accept the principle that, even though a Select Committee has found against them and it will cost them time, money and renegotiation, Select Committees are there to do a job.
The Committee considered this case the first time that the Government wanted to use a design, build and finance procedure. We heard evidence that it would take additional time and money, but the Government said that they were unwilling to accept that conclusion. They said that the only conclusion they would accept was the one that involved the Government giving themselves a small caning on the backside for not putting the facts and figures together very well and for second-rate presentation. That is not good enough and will bring the Select Committee procedure on hybrid Bills into disrepute.
As I have said, it is an attack not only on the seven members of the Committee but on the whole Select Committee procedure for dealing with hybrid Bills. We all have an interest in seeing that that procedure is properly protected and is not used simply as a doormat by the Government. We must all make a stand to see that Select Committees are used properly and treated with respect, even when they draw conclusions that are inconvenient for 100 the Government and for their concessionaires. The Government cannot ride roughshod over Select Committees.
I should like to make a few points on finance and wind-shielding. These matters are important. When I started to serve on the Committee I took the view, based on gut feeling similar to that felt by some of the professional engineers involved in the design of the bridge, that near the Severn bridge on the west coast where I come from is a very windy area. The east coast is not as windy. Therefore, the many hours during which one would expect to see traffic restricted or diverted from the Severn bridge would not occur on the east coast because the winds in London are not like those in south Wales. I took a macho view.
The Minister has said that the Severn bridge has been closed only three times in the past 21 years. He did not say that the closures were all in the last two years. We have a Select Committee but we do not want select evidence from the Minister. The evidence must be treated in more than one way, and not just in the way favourable to the Government's case. We have to look at it objectively, because, when the bridge is constructed, it will be in place for a long time.
The key evidence against the Government was presented by their own employee. He was their top expert not just on winds, but on their effects on structures, which is the key factor in Dr. Cook's expertise, which was never challenged by anybody on the promoters' — the Government's—side. It was to the effect that, because the Dartford crossing would be in a particular alignment across the Thames and high above the river, the wind impact on vehicles crossing it in the one-way mode, which would be the norm, would be virtually as great—well within the margin of error — as the wind impact on traffic on the Severn bridge. I am more familiar with that bridge as I use it once or twice a month. Our experience as laymen that the west coast is windier than the east coast is not necessarily relevant according to the Government's top wind expert, who was called by the petitioners and not by the promoters. That evidence was never challenged.
We come back to the fundamental point, that, if the Government want to make a success and build confidence in this design, build and finance form of privatisation that they are setting out to use for the motorway system, they have to show that they are not cutting corners in order to make it a financial success for the promoters but of doubtful benefit to road users.
Let us deal with road users. I speak frankly as someone from the Celtic fringe who, like my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) has no direct traffic constituency connection to the Dartford-Thurrock crossing. We simply have the ability to consider how important this bridge is relative to the roads and bridges in our areas.
It takes a bit of swallowing of pride to admit to the volume of traffic that will use this road, even though it is not technically classified as a motorway, so that motor bikes, learner drivers, and so on, will be able to use it. The evidence given to us shows that in terms of traffic volume it is about twice as important as the Severn bridge. It will carry a colossal volume of traffic. About 40 or 50 per cent. of traffic will be local, from Essex and Kent, and this is probably the most important short length of motorway anywhere in Britain.
When the Channel tunnel is opened in 1992–93 and when we have full and free trade under the single internal 101 market regulations—assuming that they come about in 1992 — there will be a colossal volume of strategically important traffic travelling from France, Spain and Germany, the Benelux countries, not just to Kent or Essex, but to the midlands and to the north. That traffic will cross that length of motorway over the Thames. Therefore, it is perhaps the single most important two or three miles in the British motorway system. It is vital that it should be right and that there should be no unnecessary restrictions.
In many ways it will be the road transport jugular vein of Britain. For that reason, if there are ways of making sure that the traffic flows smoothly, we must take them, even if that costs the concessionaires a little extra money or results in a delay in their getting their money back of from 14 to 20 years or conceivably a loss of risk capital. They are in the risk business and that is the risk that they have to take. I do not wish that on the concessionaires, but that is the type of business that they are in. They are not operating on a cost-plus basis. They entered into it on a partly risk-bearing basis and they knew that before the Select Committee stage.
It is totally wrong for us to say that they may bear some risks, but we must eliminate those risks if they involve additional costs that they do not like. The Government cannot say that if the concessionaires do not like it, they will put it right, but if the Select Committee does not like it, they will ignore it. That is the wrong attitude in terms of the public interest in traffic flow and the importance of the M25 Thames crossing to the road system of Britain starting in 1993.
The evidence from the Severn bridge is clear, but there will be problems on the M25 Thames crossing, with the weight of lorry traffic which is particularly susceptible to high winds and which will carry key items of export freight from Scotland, the north and the midlands to the continent. It is vital that the bridge is right. It should not be a skimped, second-rate, cut-price bridge in order to ensure that the design, build and finance contract gets off to a good start in the view of the concessionaires and not in the view of the users of the bridge.
§ Mr. Dover
I am the only hon. Member who was on the Select Committee and the Standing Committee. I am also a civil engineer, without any financial interest in a building or civil engineering firm, although until the end of 1986 I was Wimpey's parliamentary consultant in the House.
In his opening speech and in response to the Select Committee, the Minister spoke about the so-called independent report from a Danish engineer. I have that report, and I do not consider that it is independent. The Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company Ltd. together with COWI Consult, a Danish engineering firm, made a bid for the third Bosphorus bridge in Turkey. I compliment Trafalgar House on its massive export orders around the world and on its superb first Bosphorus bridge. I regret that it did not build the second one, and I hope that it will land the contract for the third.
Those firms — Cleveland Bridge, part of Trafalgar House and the Dartford River Crossing Company—are in league with the Danish firm in putting in a very large tender for the third Bosphorus crossing. Dartford River Crossing Company briefed the engineers. The Government played no part in that, nor have their advisers, Maunsell and Kent and Essex county councils.
102 They have since been asked to do nothing further and they have not been consulted since the end of the Select Committee's consideration.
There were only two days of briefing with Dartford River Crossing personnel. One of the items that Dartford River Crossing asked the experts to judge wasverification of Dr. Homburg's reputation as a major bridge designer.It seems strange, at that late stage for the bridge promoter to wonder about the credentials of its own so-called world expert in design. Later in the report there are rather dubious comments about whether the Severn crossing model can be likened to any Dartford model. I understand from Maunsell that the geometry was very similar, but the Danish engineer dismissed any similarity between the two projects.
The Select Committee spent some time considering whether Dartford or Severn had wind-shielding problems. We have heard from the Minister that full wind-shielding is under consideration for the second Severn bridge crossing. Indeed, much of the evidence to the Select Committee made great play of the fact that there was no bridge in the world with full wind-shielding.
We have heard that argument tonight. It is not a real argument, because the Government are rightly considering it for the second Severn bridge crossing. Indeed, the bridge referred to in the report, the Little Belt bridge in Denmark designed by the Danish engineer without wind-shielding, now has wind-shielding around its towers.
Civil engineering is a progressive art and one learns by one's mistakes or one's lack of understanding and takes suitable measures. The report states that a plastic wind shield membrane would be unsuitable. If that is so, and if the expected life is 20 years or less, why has the Department of Transport agreed to have it on a bridge on the River Tees where there is to be 16,000 sq m of glass reinforced plastic fitted?
I applaud the Department's foresight in covering the structural members that are deteriorating, and making sure that no further deterioration takes place. The plastic fairing and membranes help enormously.
§ Mr. Dover
I will be dealing with wind-shielding in a few moments. Perhaps weather-shielding was what the Minister had in mind at the Tees. I shall explain why I am talking about wind-shielding and the structural significance of the member itself.
The report made great play of the fact that plastic is not really a suitable member. That is wrong because it cart have, and will have on the Tees, a life of 30 years, which is the maximum period that an agreement certificate requires of any member in maximum exposure conditions.
The report goes on to say that the plastic material will in some way have to integrate with the steel of the bridge and that the membrane could be in aluminium or stainless steel and has to follow all the movement of the bridge. That is not true. I have checked with Maunsell, which has a different opinion from Mott, Hay and Anderson. It has given its opinion of the report, which is generally available. It says that the paragraph referring to plastic materials and movement, or the joint structural behaviour of that with the steel of the bridge iswholly and totally a wrong assessment.103 The Select Committee heard a lot of evidence about the time delay.
§ Mr. Bottomley
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but it is rather important. Was he talking about the membrane or was he referring to the plastic members of the bridge as load carrying or as covering for weather protection for existing members of the bridge?
§ Mr. Dover
We are not talking about weather protection as on the Tees bridge. We are talking about wind-shielding, with the fairing membrane making sure that the wind does not impose too much wind load on the bridge but moves past it and that whatever wind pressure is put on the bridge is taken on the main structure which is able to resist it in a more effective way than if the fairing membrane was not there.
§ Mr. Bottomley
It would be helpful to know what my hon. Friend is asserting, so that I can respond to him.
§ Mr. Dover
I mentioned the Tees bridge originally because there are assertions that the life of a plastic membrane, as there will be at Tees, is 20 years or less. The Minister will find that it will be 30 years or more at Tees and the Department of Transport would not have allowed weather-shielding to be a plastic membrane if they thought otherwise.
The Danish expert was told by Dartford River Crossing that the delay would be about 21 months. He immediately made the point in his report that a saving of five months could be made, bringing that delay down to some 16 months. I was reluctant and a little sad to hear tonight that the Government immediately put that up to 18 to 21 months, whereas Maunsell and their advisers Essex and Kent county councils reckoned on a delay of some six months.
§ Mr. Michael Fallon (Darlington)
How can my hon. Friend convince the House that either Kent or Essex can make a better assessment of the likely delay involved in the redesign of the bridge than the company that has the contract? The opinion of those who will have to redesign the bridge— the work will be done in Darlington—is that it will take 15 to 21 months. How can Essex county council have a superior view?
§ Mr. Dover
If my hon. Friend studied the Select Committee proceedings, he would see that time was spent on analysing in great detail bar charts, some showing critical path networks through those programmes and Maunsell, Kent and Essex put their points of view, and the promoters of the bridge put their points of view. It was clear to the members of the Committee that there were time savings, and that speedier routes could be followed. The Danish expert said immediately that a saving of five months could be made, but the Government have said that they will forget that, and that they reckon that the delay will be 18 to 21 months. It is possible to redesign the bridge in terms of an overall trapezoidal box, as the report suggests, but the report is not truly independent. It would 104 be possible to redesign it with minimum changes, perhaps adding one or two extra longitudinal members, and that was accepted in the Select Committee.
In the Government's response, and tonight, we have heard about an extra cost of £15 million to £18 million. It is odd that the Danish engineer was not asked to quantify the extra cost associated with the addition of wind-shielding. Tonight, for the first time, we have heard a cost-benefit analysis from the Government. We have had one from Maunsell saying that the cost-benefit is £20 million to £30 million, whereas the range of costs is £5 million to £15 million or £18 million. The users of the crossing will provide £16 million of net profit each year. If there is an override cost of £16 million or £18 million, that will be swallowed up by one years' extra toll income. There is a buffer period of five years' tolls at the end of the envisaged construction period for the facility.
The Select Committee heard that the Government's man in charge — the project director — used his sixth sense to judge that wind-shielding was not needed. We have heard that full wind-shielding is under consideration for the second Severn bridge, and I welcome that. We have read in the report from the Danish engineer that there is limited wind-shielding, as the Government intend, around the towers, and that will certainly stop the dramatic effect that drivers will feel as they pass those towers.
However, I wish the House to concentrate on the four lanes of traffic heading south at about 50 mph and slowing down towards the toll on the southern side of the bridge. Until they reach the crest, they will have been protected from the prevailing south-west wind, but when they hit the crest, they will hit that wind full on, because they will be dropping from a rising gradient to a falling gradient. The design gradients on the bridge are the maximum permitted for a 50 mph speed range.
In other words, there is a dramatic change and, along with that, a dramatic wind, but the Government are not having any wind-shielding at that point. My hon. Friend the Minister said that he will gladly carry the can, but 1 hope that he will think more carefully about the issue. It is a matter of the wind direction and the direction of the traffic. My hon. Friend mentioned the Orwell bridge, but there is already a solid barrier there which is some 1.2 m high and made of concrete. No wonder there has been no closure of that bridge through wind.
I say this with great regret, but I could not possibly support the amendment. The Select Committee thought carefully, and heard the evidence, but the Government have not gone out for independent advice to see whether one set of experts or the other is correct. All we have is the promoter seeking a further source of advice from a group with which he is already in league. I wish them all success in their third Bosphorus crossing tender.
I shall end by quoting from an article by the county engineers of Essex and Kent, areas in which half the drivers using the crossing will originate or have their destinations, so the views of these people are a vital consideration. They say:The public at large must have complete confidence in this first privately financed design and build estuarial crossing … Traffic difficulties at Dartford in future due to wind conditions would neither be forgotten nor forgiven by the public we all serve.I feel that the Government are making a mistake by turning down the recommendations of the Select Committee. Wind-shielding should be added to the bridge.
§ Mr. Janman
I welcome the Bill's quick return to the House and for the same reason as I welcomed its Second Reading. I also welcome the amendment deleting the unproven requirement for the wind-shielding. Although I withdrew it, I tabled a similar amendment in Committee. I support the Government, and not as a Government Back-Bench poodle, as was intimated by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks).
§ Mr. Janman
I stand as a Member whose constituency is immediately adjacent to the crossing and as somebody who is therefore extremely concerned whether the design of the bridge has been got right. With respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington, the number of drivers crossing the bridge daily who will emanate from my constituency will outnumber by a large factor the number of people crossing the bridge who will emanate from Hayes and Harlington. Therefore, I have a great interest in making sure that the Government get the design right. The team working on this project from DRCC and the Trafalgar House group was experienced and expert. The comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Dover) about the worldwide experience of Trafalgar House in designing bridges shows that it is unlikely that a company of such prestige and professionalism would come to a conclusion that is faulty in the way that my hon. Friend suggested.
The second Severn crossing is only just being considered and no decision about wind-shielding on that crossing has yet been reached. It may be decided that it is not required even in that particular location, which is much more susceptible to wind than the Thames between Dartford and Thurrock. Until that decision is made, it is safe to say that there is no major estuarial crossing in the world with full wind-shielding. The only instance of full wind-shielding in Europe can be seen on the Europa bridge across the Still valley in Austria. That bridge is sited at an elevation of 2,500 ft and that is quite a different location from the Thames between the Essex and Kent plains in my constituency.
The petitioners have based much of their case for extra wind-shielding on experience with the Severn bridge. Some of the Severn bridge's problems are caused by wind, but many are caused by its design. It is far more susceptible to a variety of problems, some caused by wind, than almost any other bridge in the United Kingdom. Why did the petitioners not consider the Humber bridge, the Forth bridge or any other major bridge in the United Kingdom? Obviously, it was not in their interests to do so. I believe that Maunsell, which advised Essex and Kent county councils, has a patent on full wind-shielding. I will take that back if I am wrong. Of course, Maunsell therefore has an interest to ensure that the bridge has full wind-shielding.
§ Mr. Morgan
I want to explain that Maunsell has also been chosen by the Department of Transport to be the consultant engineers for the second Severn crossing.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley
Hon. Members on both sides of the House should realise that the geometry of Dartford differs from the proposed second Severn crossing and one 106 cannot use one of those crossings as a surrogate for the other. It is also worth noting that, while the Department responsibly considers wind-shielding on the second Severn crossing, it would be ludicrous if it did not, for any good reason, aim to do the same for the Dartford crossing. The Department should be allowed some credit for being responsible for commissioning the work on the second Severn crossing.
§ 9 pm
§ Mr. Janman
The point that I am trying to make is that the firm of consulting engineers chosen by Essex and Kent has a vested interest in ensuring that full wind-shielding is installed on the bridge because it has a patent on a full wind-shielding design.
Let us consider the comparison that was made between the Dartford-Thurrock crossing and the Severn bridge. It has already been said that the Severn bridge has been closed completely only three times in its 21-year life. I believe that the laboratory where Dr. Cook worked produced projections before the Severn bridge was built about the number of hours of lane closures due to wind —although I must state that I do not know whether Dr. Cook was involved in those projections. I believe that I am right to state—no doubt my hon. Friend the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that the projections were out by at least a factor of two. There have been fewer hours of lane closures on the Severn bridge than the laboratory to which hon. Members have referred projected.
The statistics show that there is an average of 168 hours per annum of lane closure on the existing Severn crossing. Some of the projections offered by the petitioners to the Select Committee on Transport estimated that the influence of wind at Dartford would be five times greater than actually occurs at the Severn bridge, when current British standards show that maximum gust wind speeds at Dartford are about 15 per cent. lower than on the Severn bridge. The petitioners used very low wind thresholds as the base for their predictions of wind effect at Dartford.
However, the number of hours when the wind exceeds specific thresholds was calculated by the Dartford River Crossing Company for both the Dartford and Severn bridges using Meteorological Office records corrected for bridge heights and locations. The records show that the "hours of wind"—that is, the number of hours when the wind would reach a gust speed that would cause lane closures—for Dartford are no more than 25 per cent. of the Severn bridge figures for the same threshold speeds.
Taking other special factors into account, such as the particular design of the bridge and the fact that the traffic flows only one way, everyone concerned with the project has concluded, quite rightly I believe, that the number of hours of lane closure on the Thurrock-Dartford crossing would be as few as 24 per annum. When my hon. Friend the Minister replies, I hope that he will clarify whether the figure of 24 hours does or does not include the effect of localised wind-shielding and whether, if it does not, the figure of 24 hours could be reduced even further with the addition of such localised wind-shielding.
§ Dr. Reid
The hon. Gentleman has made considerable play of the 24-hour figure about which, according to him, everyone involved in the project agrees. Given the discrepancy between 24 hours and 880 hours—the figure produced by the Government's top expert on the effect of wind on structures — will he name one expert who 107 supports the 24-hour figure who has the same background, expertise and reputation as Dr. Cook? There is an awful discrepancy between 24 hours and 880 hours. If we are to judge fairly on this, will he name one expert whose reputation is as formidable as Dr. Cook's to back up his 24-hour figure, if possible without reference to any of his hon. Friends?
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley
It may be helpful to the House if I explain that we are not playing a game. We are considering a serious issue to which the Select Committee devoted nearly 21 days.
§ Mr. Bottomley
I hope that this is of assistance to the House. I open my mouth to make points not just for my side. It is fair to say that Dr. Cook presented data on wind speeds and occurrences. He did not get involved in the argument about whether wind shields were necessary.
§ Mr. Janman
It has also been accepted that at the east London river crossing, only eight miles up river and in similar territory, there will be 25.hours of lane closure per year. It strikes me that, there being only a difference of one hour between those two crossings, one could logically come to the conclusion that 24 hours of lane closure is correct. The Government, the Department of Transport, the consultants acting on behalf of the Government, the Dartford River Crossing Company and the Trafalgar House group, all of which have individuals whose judgment I respect and value, have come to the conclusion that there will be only 24 hours of lane closures per year at the new crossing as a result of the gust speeds that will operate in this geographic location and their effect on vehicles travelling across. It is interesting—
§ Mr. Robert Hughes
I should like to make one point to the hon. Gentleman. He has cast some doubt on the integrity of the firm of consultants that advised about wind-shielding on the ground that it is trying to sell its systems to Trafalgar House and therefore cannot be objective. The hon. Gentleman should have a care about casting doubt on people's reputations, especially as he appears to be quoting from a brief that he received from Thurrock borough council. It is the council that is making those allegations and it is opposed to the system. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will try to deal with the matter on its merits and not throw mud about.
§ Mr. Janman
With respect, I said that the company had a patent on the design. I did not at any time say that it was trying to sell it. I am not quoting from a brief provided by my local council, which I should remind the hon. Gentleman is a Labour-controlled local authority. If he is casting doubt on its integrity, perhaps the current political control has something to do with that.
It has been revealed in the debate that most of the wind-related incidents on the existing Severn bridge occur near the towers of the bridge. Therefore, it is important that there should be some form of wind-shielding at the towers. That is exactly what the localised wind-shielding will provide. In my view, it will cater adequately for any wind-shielding that is required.
We have to decide tonight whether it is worth the extra cost to the motorist and the extra delays. I do not think that it matters whether the delay is 15, 18 or 21 months; 108 we are talking about a long delay in a project that is required urgently. As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) pointed out, that sort of delay could jeopardise jobs in the north-east of England, which is where Opposition Members are always saying that we need more jobs.
For 24 hours of lane closure per year, of which, statistically, at least half will be at night when the real challenges of traffic control will not apply, are we prepared to have that long delay and jeopardise jobs in the north-east? Perhaps what has happened, to use a rugby analogy, is that the Select Committee has scored the first try, but I think that after reassessing the evidence, which the Government have done, we will see that the winning argument is that against wind-shielding, not the argument in favour.
I certainly welcome the Bill on Report and Third Reading and I welcome and support the amendment. My constituents are intimately involved in the bridge and are keen to see it built as soon as possible. They certainly do not want to drive across a bridge that is dangerous. They welcome the Government's reassessment and their conclusion.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
I come as a non-member of the Select Committee to listen to the debate because it is important that we should keep an eye on these matters and not leave discussions to Committee Members.
I have heard the arguments and read some of the report, and I am alarmed to see that, in paragraph 6 of its report, the Select Committee stated:Over the course of 15 days, we heard a substantial amount of evidence on the desirability or otherwise of adding windshielding to the bridge.The Committee's conclusions were made on an entirely objective basis with no party political involvement. That objective assessment of the evidence was made after long and boring proceedings, with counsel for both sides appearing to be paid by the hour and making every hour as lucrative as possible—that is the general reputation of such Committees—yet the Committee's conclusions were case aside so lightly by the Government
I also read the Government report, and I hope that the Minister will answer my questions. In paragraph 6 of its report the Select Committee stated:We acknowledge that a requirement to add windshielding to the design at this stage would cause some delay to and increase the cost of construction. We believe, however, that these disadvantages should be set against the significant reduction in the number of occasions when restrictions on vehicles using the bridge would have to be imposed owing to high winds. We concluded that the benefits to be gained from windshielding are sufficient to compensate for the delay and increased cost in building the bridge. We have agreed by a majority of five to one to amend the Bill accordingly.That was a hefty majority of the Committee. The House will accept that the Committee was considering the matter objectively. People suspect that perhaps the Government have not been quite so objective. The Minister will be able to tell us whether, as a result of those published conclusions in the special report of the Select Committee, there have been any representations from Trafalgar House, any communications, meetings with civil servants or the Minister, exchanges of letters or protests from the concessionaires, who would not like to see the cost of bridge construction increased in that way.
Has there been any pressure, or has the Department taken an entirely objective position and decided that the 109 additional cost is simply not worth the candle of the reduced number of potential closures on the bridge because of high winds?
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley
I remember one conversation with a senior member of the Dartford River Crossing Company. I suspect that there have been letters, and there have certainly been meetings, because we have put a substantial amount of pressure on DRCC to obtain the information on which we could make an objective judgment. I stand by the words in my opening speech.
§ Mr. Cryer
When a Minister tries to make an objective judgment on subjective information from people who are interested parties, it is a difficult process. I understand the Minister's problem, but, in Parliament, we have to consider the circumstances and decide whether they are satisfactory.
There are two sides to the matter. On the one hand, hon. Members who are not involved on a constituency basis and have no axe to grind have to go through a boring procedure because they are asked to do so and have to make the best of the circumstances. On the other hand, the Minister, cosseted by civil servants behind closed doors, receives evidence from people with a clear financial vested interest. The difficulties in making an objective decision are far greater for the Minister than for the Committee.
We set up these Committees to do a job in the public interest. The Committee may just as well not have sat, for all the value that the Government have placed on its deliberations. It is not just a case of the Labour Opposition saying that the Government are taking a ham-fisted approach, as there has been virulent criticism from a Conservative Member. This is an important matter. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) said — he is a Rugby Union enthusiast, with some justification to judge from recent events—the House will have to consider the issue. With a Government who have a majority of 100, the House has to reassess its position in regard to an elected dictatorship. If we have Select Committees spending hours examining evidence that is then discarded, the House will have to consider whether it is worth while pursuing such procedure for legislation such as this.
The inability of the Government and the concessionaires to present adequate evidence was all concealed behind a cloak of commerial confidentiality. That cloak is used far too frequently. Departments can shield pretty well what they want. By and large, it is not Ministers who classify documents, "Commercial in Confidence". The documents arrive on their desks stamped by a civil servant. Until we are clear about the relationship between Trafalgar House and the Civil Service, we are not clear about the influences that produce category.
I do not accept the argument in the Government's resonse that there was sufficient justification on grounds of commercial confidentiality to inhibit them from presenting a full and comprehensive answer to the detailed questions which the Committee properly asked. In paragraph 17, the Government say:The Government, as promoters of the Bill, assisted by the concessionaires, presented the case in the way they thought most helpful to the Committee.110 That patently was not the case — the Committee complained. The Government are to have an inquiry. They say:The Secretary of State has already begun an enquiry into the way in which the case was handled and will ensure that this enquiry includes consideration of ways in which difficulties might be avoided on any future occasion.That is the sort of platitudinous nonsense that Governments turn out to suit any occasion. We shall get a platitudinous report in which the Government say that a little more information could have been presented a little earlier. The Secretary of State will look at it and it will gather dust until the next point of disagreement.
The Government are too closed a society. Government Departments use the excuse of secrecy to do what they like. It is simply not good enough to have such a response to people who were elected here to do a job which they do not much like doing but which they do with reasonable spirit. In a spirit of inquiry, they produced a report for public consumption. They were fobbed off with childish answers. It does the Minister and the Department no good at all to produce a response of such poor calibre.
The case that the Select Committee made has not yet been answered. I look forward to the Minister's winding-up speech. He has received strong criticism from both sides of the House and from members of the Committee. There is a strong case for retaining the Committee's recommendation. I hope that there is a vote on the Government amendment. In view of the Minister's comments, I suspect that the Government have kept sufficient Members here to see the amendment through. The matter will not be decided in quite as objective a way as has been suggested. It is lamentable that the Government's case has been put forward on such an ordinary level. They have produced no answers of any substance.
§ Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)
We spent 21 days of our lives listening to evidence, much of it highly complex and technical. AI times, indeed, it became positively surrealistic to listen to long and worthy arguments about vortex-shedding, flutter and all sorts of other strange things of which I have never heard in my life. My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr Chapman) was a delight as Chairman: indeed, it was his chairmanship that made some of the lengthier and more boring sections of the inquiry bearable.
It had its lighter moments, however. Mention has been made of the substantial fees paid to counsel on both sides. The House sat all through one Tuesday evening, and, when we assembled on Wednesday morning, we had to remind counsel that the day was still Tuesday, and that Tuesday's refresher would have to do for Wednesday as well. There were one or two unhappy faces on the other side of the table! However, it has to be said that those moments were brief and all too infrequent.
The sitting became a battle of wits between the rapier cross-examination of the petitioners' counsel, Mr. Conrad Dehn, and the somewhat more pedestrian efforts of the Government's counsel and between the articulate and highly credible evidence of the petitioners' principal witness, Mr. Churchman, arid some of the more halting contributions on behalf of the Government and the concessionaires.
Ultimately, it came down to whether we accepted the petitioners' contention that restrictions would have to be put on the bridge for, variously, 500 or 800 hours a year.
111 In their rebuttal of the Select Committee's evidence, the Government have produced in appendix A facts and figures which I wish to goodness we had had when the Committee sat. If I had been able to see that the Severn bridge had been closed only three times in its 20-year history, that the average for lane closures between 1984 and 1986 was only 168 hours a year and that restrictions on wind-susceptible vehicles were only 60 hours a year, it would have been easier to cut through the enormous verbiage to which we were subjected.
I am also taken with the Government's instance of the Mar Dyke, on the crossing approaches of the M25, just north of the Dartford-Thurrock crossing. There, we are told, the forecast suggests that gusts of 50 mph, the conventionally accepted threshold for consideration of the closure of a bridge to wind-susceptible vehicles, occur for just 11 hours a year. We are told that, using the same forecasting methods — the petitioners' own wind forecasting method, I believe, was used—the projection for Dartford bridge is some 37 hours a year. I use the name of Dartford bridge in the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman), who has other ideas about its naming. If the Mar Dyke viaduct offers such projections to a bridge just south of it, we have listened to an awful lot of words based on information produced by one side and not rebutted by the other.
I regret that the Government have had to rely for their rebuttal largely on the evidence produced by Aksel Frandsen, the distinguished Danish engineer from COWI Consult. I regret most the fact that this rebuttal has been produced with new evidence after the Select Committee and the Standing Committee finished their proceedings, so this evidence cannot be tested by cross-examination by the Committee or by the counsel who represented the petitioners and the Government. I find Mr. Aksel Frandsen's evidence persuasive, but that is likely to happen, because I was the one—as opposed to the five — who did not find the petitioners' case to have been made.
I sat through many hours in Committee. I represent a Kent constituency and my natural feeling would have been to support the petition submitted by my county and Essex, but I did not find the case to have been made. I was especially concerned by the threat of delays that would result from redesign work and the possible rehybridisation of the Bill. That becomes a real prospect if one reads carefully the evidence of Mr. Frandsen and of the Government.
It is clear— I think that this was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Dover) —that the gradients of the bridge are the maximum that can be permitted in these circumstances. If those gradients were to be retained and the bridge had to be completely redesigned to a trapezoidal box system, as opposed to an orthotropic steel deck, the toll booths at the southern end would have to be moved. That would involve more land and other people whose interests might be hurt by the Bill. That would clearly involve rehybridisation and the reselection of the Select Committee. I hope to have a good alibi so that I am not recommissioned to sit on the Select Committee, because 21 days was long enough.
I am content that the Government seek by way of this amendment to take wind-shielding out of the Bill. I am less content with the inelegant way in which it has had to be 112 done. I am certain that, had the Government and the concessionaires presented a better case in Select Committee, we would not have come to the conclusions that we did. I think especially of Mr. Frandsen's evidence. Whether it is compromised by the fact that COWI Consult worked with Trafalgar House is by the by. That evidence would have been persuasive and we would not have found the petitioners' case to be made.
I shall support the Government. I dare say that other members of the Select Committee from both sides of the House will feel that, in the interests of consistency, they should vote against the amendment. We shall find out in the Lobbies who will prevail.
§ Mr. Fallon
I shall be brief, because the House wants to come to a decision. I begin by declaring an interest— not a financial interest, company involvement or an interest as a fan of any of the various sets of civil engineers mentioned during the debate, but a constituency interest. Much of the fabrication involved in the bridge will be carried out in Darlington. We look forward to some 350 man years of work in Darlington, involving some 20,000 tonnes of steel fabrication. That work will be done in Darlington and the steel will be produced either in the north-east or in Scotland. I should have liked to hear at least some recognition of the employment effects of the contract from hon. Members who have sought to impose the wind shield and the delay that is consequent upon it.
The rest of the country has an interest in the bridge. It is not simply a matter for Kent or Essex. Some areas of high unemployment will be involved in its construction. Regions north of Essex are looking forward to faster and more efficient links with the south and Europe.
I make that point because 1,000 men in Darlington are on short-time working. They are now facing a four-day week. The Select Committee has been making leisurely progress—it sat for three days a week as the lawyers sought to debate for hour after hour—and 1,000 of my constituents have been forced on to a four-day week while waiting for this project, which has been substantially delayed by the Select Committee's slow progress.
I want to be fair to the Select Committee, because I understand the problems involved. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) that I served on a Select Committee in the last Parliament that sat for twice as long as this one—the Select Committee on the Channel Tunnel Bill. I understand the burden that is imposed on hon. Members.
Nevertheless, it is right to point out that today's debate illustrates perfectly the impossible task that the Select Committee had. It is not the function of a Select Committee to design a bridge; we do not ask a Select Committee to do that. Nor can we ask a Select Committee to redesign a bridge on the basis of petitions and evidence from civil engineers and construction experts.
I suspect that it was because of the over-generosity of my hon. Friend for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) and the Committee in accepting the locus of the petitioners that it put itself in this impossible position. I think that that was a serious error of judgment.
The entire debate has been about an important issue of public policy — exactly how the bridge should be constructed, what the various delays involved are and how the traffic can be dealt with if the delays materialise. That point is not just a matter for the petitioners of Kent and Essex. It is a matter of public policy. It was wrong for the 113 Select Committee to take it on board. It should have been left to a Standing Committee to consider, along with the other issues of public policy that could have been brought before it.
§ Mr. Chapman
In fairness to the Select Committee, it should be said that in examining whether the petitioners had a locus we had to look at whether their interests would have been affected. Rightly or wrongly — perhaps my hon Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) thinks wrongly—we said that they did have an interest because of the consequences for their roads on both sides of the River Thames if the bridge was closed.
§ Mr. Fallon
I accept that point, and I have read the proceedings of the Committee. I notice that the Select Committee was divided and that it voted on whether a locus had been established. I believe that the Select Committee was wrong. Of course a council on either side of the river might have an interest in whether traffic would be redirected, but that interest is not necessarily any greater than that of Durham county council, Darlington borough council, the rest of our road network from which much of the traffic might originate or those district or county councils to which the traffic might be directed. The Select Committee confused a particular interest with a wider general public interest that Kent and Essex have, but which they share with other local authorities throughout the country.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes
Will the hon. Gentleman concede that, if the Select Committee had not accepted the locus and had generated, albeit over a lengthy period, such an intense and interesting debate about wind-shielding, the Government would not have introduced partial wind-shielding? The Committee has done a service because apparently the bridge is now even better, although it is not entirely what the petitioners and some hon. Members wanted. Improvement has been effected because of the Select Committee's work. I tell the hon. Gentleman—I hope without being patronising—that that never would have arisen if the matter had been dealt with solely by a Standing Committee.
§ Mr. Fallon
I certainly accept that the Select Committee has done a service to the House in ensuring that the issue has been properly debated. Equally, the matter could have been before a Standing Committee. I am seeking to establish that the Select Committee put itself in an impossible position. It came to a divided conclusion.
§ Mr. Fallon
No, I shall not give way.
The Committee was divided in its conclusion on whether shielding was necessary. It voted on the issue. It is inevitable that one side of the Committee will be satisfied and that the other will be dissatisfied about whatever steps the Government take to deal with the matter. It is unfair to the House and wrong to expect a Select Committee to deal with the matter in that way.
The way in which the Committee considered the matter has lengthened the amount of time involved. The project has been considerably delayed. I hope that it will not be delayed much longer. It is instructive to note that a bridge was first considered by the House in 1930, when the tunnel was first planned. That was 58 years ago.
§ Mr. Tony Lloyd
This has been a curious debate, for at least one reason. The only voices that have been raised in aid of the Government, other than that of the Minister —I say this kindly to the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) — have been those of hon. Members who have a vested interest in the project or in the Government. I shall pass over the hon. Gentleman's PPS-ships.
§ Mr. Couchman
I devoted 21 days of my life to listening to the evidence, and I found the petitioners' case wanting. I have been consistent in finding that case wanting tonight. I shall certainly support the Government on that basis, not because I am a junior member of the most junior rung of the Government.
§ Mr. Lloyd
I accept the hon. Gentleman's juniority. It is well-deserved. I do not wish to engage in a personalised debate.
The hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) made it clear that he spoke for what he perceived to be the interests of his constituents, as indeed did the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman).
Those hon. Members who have come disinterested to the Chamber have spoken powerfully against the amendment and in favour of the status quo. It is rather curious and instructive to note the way in which, in his latter remarks, the hon. Member for Darlington managed to confuse the House and himself. He said that somehow it was heinous that the Select Committee should divide five to one, and that somehow that meant that there was a rift. The hon. Gentleman prefers the ministerial steamroller — the absolute certainty of the Minister telling him exactly how to behave — to the idea that we in a democratic society and in a democratic Parliament should have differences of opinion on matters that everyone concedes are of great complication. The Select Committee procedure allows it to examine in detail, over a considerable period, the arguments that were put forward, and to have a difference of opinion. Even within that difference of opinion, the way in which it voted on a cross-party basis was overwhelming.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) said, had it not been for the Select Committee, the concept of partial wind-shielding would not have arisen. The Minister indicated his assent to that earlier, and no doubt he will confirm it later. But the progress of the Bill through the House reflects no credit on the promoters or on the Department.
The Select Committee produced two volumes of detailed argument and evidence. I have not had the opportunity —hon. Members would not have expected it — to replicate all the deliberations of the Committee. The Minister has admitted that he has not had the direct experience of the members of the Select Committee. Like mine, his experience is second-hand. Yet the Government have produced a document which supposedly refutes the technical arguments that were made before the Select Committee.
The document contains information that was not made available to members of the Select Committee, and its production at this late stage is inadequate. It is not good enough that the Select Committee did not have information on wind speeds in other areas. It is not good enough that the Committee did not hear that evidence put to the test under cross-examination, as happened with all 115 the other evidence that it heard. It is not good enough that the Government had already made up their mind to oppose the Select Committee examining wind-shielding.
This evening, we have heard arguments about whether that examination was right or wrong. It is worth quoting from the minutes of evidence on page 853. On Thursday 15 December, the Chairman said:The Government challenged the right of the Petitioners to be heard on the subjects of windshielding and the toll regime. Concerning the latter, the Government contended that the Petitioners had no locus standi on this issue and also that any alteration to the proposed regime would be contrary to the principle of the Bill. We decided that the County Councils did not have a locus standi on this issue, so the Petitioners were not allowed to produce evidence on it.But the Committee accepted that the two county councils had an interest in wind-shielding, and the ensuing prolonged debate has been of great importance to the House. There was no debate on the issue on Second Reading, because the evidence was not available at the time. But once the petitioners started to make their case to the Select Committee, it became obvious that powerful arguments had to be considered — powerful arguments that the Government wanted to sweep under the table.
The Minister should respond to that point because the Government, through their representatives, opposed the idea that wind-shielding should be discussed. Had it not been discussed, we should not have achieved what everyone accepts is the improvement of partial wind-shielding. That is a black mark on the Government's record and handling of the matter.
In Standing Committee, the Opposition made it clear that there was little point in pursuing the argument because we had received no new evidence from the Government. They had already made it clear that they intended to table an amendment on Report. But we did not know on what information the Government would base the amendment. We now have that evidence and the opportunity of this narrow debate, but we could have debated the matter more fully in Standing Committee had the information been available.
The Government made some play of the amount of time that the Bill has taken, but no one can argue that the two or three weeks that have elapsed between the proceedings in Standing Committee and now will greatly affect the role of the bridge in the traffic management of the south-east and the nation generally.
§ Dr. Reid
In response to what was said earlier by the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon). does my hon. Friend accept that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) and I have male unemployment in our constituencies well in excess of that in Darlington? Is he aware that both of us have a steel interest and that, however remote, our subjective interest would be to push the Bill through as soon as possible? Do not those two facts make our case even stronger because, despite them, we feel that in the public interest there should be some delay and that wind-shielding should be added?
§ Mr. Lloyd
I accept my hon. Friend's point. Despite what I said earlier about the hon. Member for Gillingham, all members of the Select Committee began and ended with clean hands. We were all disinterested and the process was 116 conducted in the interests of general public and parliamentary scrutiny of an important Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North said, we want to see another crossing at this part of the Thames. It is important that it should be built.
But it is not right for Parliament to allow a crossing on any terms and conditions, or to accept whatever scheme is proposed by promoters in any circumstances simply because of delays of weeks or even months. There is an argument between the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Dover) and the Minister about the nature of the delays. Even if they are as long as 18 months, it is not right for us to accept a second-rate bridge or an unacceptable bridge simply because we all accept the ultimate importance of another crossing at this point.
It is remarkable to have a procedure involving hon. Members, only at the end of it to reject everything that they do. That is what the Government have done, and no one should have any illusions about it. The Government have not taken on board the evidence that came before us or our recommendations; they have rejected them completely. There has been a partial attempt through limited wind-shielding to allay public fears, and that at least is a partial triumph for the Select Committee, but clearly, from the recommendations, that is not what it wanted. Nor is it what the public needs. There are real doubts and anxieties about wind-shielding. The Government should not casually dismiss the Select Committee process.
Hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber want this bridge. We are not divided along party political lines. Every hon. Member knows that the Government will have their payroll vote steamroller this Bill through, partly because the concept of design, build and finance projects is ideologically important to them. They want to make this first one a success. We are not here to debate that and I shall not detain the House, except to say that the Government's desire to make a success of the first of these new bridge-building projects is not an adequate reason to steamroller the procedures of the House and the work done by hon. Members on both sides where no party political division exists. The Chamber will become divided if the Government say that we must take evidence on trust and unexamined when the alternative evidence was examined thoroughly and carefully.
I cannot understand why the Minister should expect me to trust him as an individual. Ultimately, he is present as the arbiter of the experts that he marshals. He is here to convince the House that his expert's evidence has greater validity than that of the experts who paraded before the Select Committee. I do not say this unkindly, but I can have no greater confidence in his ability to represent his experts than I have in the five members of the Select Committee who listened with great attention hour after hour, day after day.
That is what divides the House. It is an issue of confidence in the procedure which has arrived at the decision to get rid of the full wind-shielding on the bridge, and whether it has adequately examined the facts. We say that it has not. The procedure that produced the report that recommended wind-shielding was as thorough as could take place under the parliamentary process. Because that procedure has been followed and the recommendation was overwhelmingly in favour of wind-shielding, I ask my hon. Friends to resist the amendment.
Mr. Peter Bottomley: The
majority recommendation by the parliamentary select committee on the Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Bill to introduce wind shielding raises important questions of a constitutional philosophical and technical nature. First, the constitutional issue.
A hybrid Bill procedure was adopted for the privately financed bridge because it offers a much shorter preconstruction period than the conventional and somewhat discredited public inquiry route, and gives a chance of opening the structure early in the 1990s.
But if the hybrid route is to he more than just a rubber stamp, then Parliament's scrutiny must be thorough and its views influential. It is no good the promoter bleating that the alterations required by the select committee add costs and delays, or that such changes are tantamount to breaking faith with the agreement or changing the rules part way through. Just as with the 19th century railway Bills, the promoter must convince Parliament of its case, and must run the risk of failing. Privately financed construction should operate that way or not at all.
The second question concerns the nature of the project. Any Government interested in the efficient movement of people and freight has to be concerned about the vulnerability of a particular link to bad weather, while a private promoter might simply be interested in the effect any closure would have on commercial viability. Their conclusions need not be the same. The Select Committee on the Dartford crossing is correct to scrutinise this issue in the public interest.
The third and crucial question is whether the recommendation is right. Were the bridge an isolated crossing with no other routes nearby (such as at Severn) the answer might well be yes. But with the tunnel alternatives so close, it is hard to see how the committee can justify the extra cost and delay. On these grounds, the Government may be justified in overruling the committee.
Both private finance and the hybrid Bill have much to offer in construction, but only where the promoter shoulders risk and where the Parliamentary procedure has teeth. If they are to succeed, promoters must become more forthcoming and persuasive than at the Dartford hearings, and select committees need to be more technically literate, perhaps by employing advisors, so that they can judge better conflicting technical advice.
Those words come from the New Civil Engineer editorial after the Committee had reported, and I believe that the House thinks that they are all right.
There is the issue that Parliament cannot allow the Government to take it for granted, especially when a Select Committee has served as long and hard as did this one. The editorial went on to say that the Select Committee's recommendation was not necessarily right. When I was watching the Select Committee from afar, it was interesting to note that the technical press showed no interest. The issue was considered for seven weeks, yet the New Civil Engineer did not report it each week, the Institution of Civil Engineers did not organise seminars in the middle of it, and the construction journals showed no interest in it, and that was a sign to me that the issue did not grip the whole of the consulting world as it obviously did the counsel for the petitioners and promoters and members of the Select Committee. Having read, day by day the transcript—